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Karen Caldwell ’77

Transylvania alumna an example for our newest citizens

Judge Karen Caldwell

As Transylvania welcomes the world to campus for a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Naturalization Ceremony on March 21, 2014, we are proud that it is an alumna, Judge Karen Caldwell ’77, who will administer the Oath of Allegiance.

The daughter of a Lincoln County farmer, Caldwell has worked hard throughout her life to become successful in her profession and to serve her community.

Like the ceremony’s participants, she has forged her own way in an unfamiliar world, finding herself on the frontier of her profession, frequently working twice as hard as her male counterparts to break down the barriers of discrimination.

It’s one thing to realize in seventh grade that you want to be a lawyer. It’s quite another to work your way to becoming the first woman in Kentucky to be appointed U.S. attorney—the chief federal prosecutor—for the Eastern District of Kentucky. In 1991 Caldwell was one of eight women out of 98 U.S. attorneys in the country. She was also the youngest, at age 35, to oversee her office’s staff of 70.

And it’s still another thing to weather public skepticism and prove the naysayers wrong.

When asked by the Lexington Herald-Leader (Feb. 3, 1992) about her goals, Caldwell replied:

“I want to be the best U.S. attorney I can be. I heard Colin Powell say that once when he was asked if it was hard to be the first black in his position, the chief officer of the military. He said his objective was to be the best he could be. That’s my objective, too.

“I think any time you’re the first at something people are looking more closely at what you do and maybe judge it a bit more harshly. However, I think in actually accomplishing a task, it isn’t significantly more difficult for me.”

Indeed, Caldwell gained a reputation for successfully fighting public corruption in state government, directing the prosecution of the FBI’s BOPTROT investigation which resulted in the conviction of 17 lobbyists and state officials and a change in state law in 1993. She was named “Outstanding Lawyer of the Year’ and recognized by the Department of Justice for her efforts.

In a letter nominating her for the OAK Award given by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education and presented to outstanding Kentucky alumni (Caldwell received the award in 2006), a colleague noted that Judge Caldwell “has earned a reputation as not just a tremendous female jurist but as a truly outstanding jurist.”

By 2001 Caldwell had been nominated by President George W. Bush to be the United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Kentucky. The U.S. Senate confirmed her lifetime appointment with a unanimous vote.

Nearly 30 years after graduating from Transylvania University, when giving the commencement speech recognizing the institution’s 225th anniversary, Caldwell reminded graduating seniors that “your life is not just about smoothing your own path, it is about serving others along the way and building bridges for those who follow.” 

Judge Caldwell’s journey includes a deep commitment to family, friends, community, her alma mater, the law, and her country. Vice President Al Gore appointed her to serve on the Committee to Re-invent Government in 1993, and she was appointed by Attorneys General Janet Reno and William P. Barr to serve on the Attorney General Advisory Subcommittee in 1992–93. She has served on numerous local and state-wide committees and boards in and around Lexington, including the Lexington Children’s Theater Capital Fund Drive, Leadership Kentucky, and as president of Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky. Judge Caldwell received an honorary doctor of laws degree in recognition of her Transylvania service and professional achievements. She has been a member of the university’s Board of Trustees since 2001.

All along the way she has helped break down walls of discrimination, ignorance, and corruption.

We welcome this opportunity to champion Judge Karen Caldwell and the new citizens of our nation, each one an example for us all, pioneers on a new frontier, filled with promise and hope.

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